In October, my wife and I did something we hadn’t done since pre-pandemic days: we left the country. We took a couple of weeks off to visit Portugal, with a brief side jaunt to Spain for a day. Needless to say, it didn’t suck.
The food and drink in Portugal is excellent, especially if you love fresh fish and seafood; there are mountains of it. And, compared to European countries like France, Italy and Germany, it’s relatively inexpensive to eat and drink in Portugal. Whereas in Europe Faith and I usually seek out some meals in Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants, on this trip we mostly avoided those spots. We wanted to keep it “real” and eschew the tweezer food that we can find plenty of right here at home. I think we succeeded. Maybe Portugal is in your future travel plans? Or maybe not. Either way, I invite you to enjoy our travels via these postcards from Portugal.
Our first dinner upon arriving in Lisbon (which the Portuguese call Lisboa) was at a spectacular seafood restaurant in Bairro do Avillez called Páteo, which occupies the central patio of a unique culinary complex containing a number of restaurants. It is named for superstar chef José Avillez.
One of chef Avillez’s favorite dishes at Páteo is one that is quite common in both Portugal and Spain, a simple preparation of prawns with garlic and chili in a buttery wine sauce, called gambas al ajillo in Spain. The prawns were plump, tender and tasty.
If there is one thing restaurants in Portugal do really well, it is cooking octopus and squid, which are ubiquitous in that country – particularly along the coast, which is where we were. Another stunning dish at Páteo was their chargrilled squid with black rice, chorizo, garlic, microgreens, chiles, and kimchi mayonnaise, which was priced at about $30, but was large enough to share. The squid was incredibly tender and we both loved the black rice that accompanied that sensational squid.
A stupendous starter at Páteo was ceviche-style sea bass marinated with lime and cilantro and garnished with avocado, Fresno chiles, and red onion.
Lunch on the rooftop terrace at BAHR – Bairro Alto Hotel & Restaurant – affords guests beautiful panoramic views and top-notch fare to enjoy with those views, not to mention outstanding service.
Faith had an excellent seared ahi tuna salad and we shared a bottle of yummy Portuguese Rosé for lunch, where we were introduced to beautifully functional stemware from Austria by glassmaker Gabriel Glas.
Meanwhile, I opted for a mountainous serving of beef tartare accompanied by some of the best French fries I’ve ever eaten – very airy and unique. BAHR also serves brunch and dinner and we highly recommend it if you’re ever in Lisbon.
ne of the most sought-after tables in Lisbon is at the wildly popular Cervejaria Ramiro, where seafood is the main attraction. In fact, the restaurant doesn’t even serve side dishes with the exception of packages of potato chips and bread.
Cervejaria Ramiro is a fun, boisterous place to dine and the first spot we visited where we discovered a common practice in Portugal: that of showing guests the live (or near live) seafood and fish that they are about to eat. At Cervejaria Ramiro our server introduced us to the living langoustines (Norway lobster) we were about to enjoy. We saw this in a number of restaurants during our vacation. By the way, I brushed up on my Portuguese prior to visiting Portugal. But to be honest, there’s no need to since most of the folks we met in Portugal spoke English – it’s an easy country to maneuver without speaking the native language.
Shellfish is the main attraction at Cervejaria Ramiro and I have never seen so many different types of prawns, of which we sampled many. There were tiger prawns, giant tiger prawns, scarlet shrimp, deep-water pink shrimp, glass prawns, prawns in garlic sauce, and many more. It’s a shrimp lover’s paradise! One thing I love about seafood in Portugal is how simply it’s prepared. More often than not, prawns, langoustines, octopus, squid, lobster and such are grilled over high heat and typically drizzled with olive oil. So you’re tasting the naked shellfish, not sauce.
One of the foods you see everywhere in Portugal is the ubiquitous pastel de nata (pasteis is plural), a very popular egg custard tart pastry that is a common breakfast item but can be eaten anytime. You’ll find them everywhere from pastry shops to the equivalent of 7-11 stores.
A must-stop for tourists in Lisbon is the popular Time Out Market, which is packed most of the time. It is a sprawling food court where you can find Portuguese food from every corner of the country under one roof. There are more than 40 food outlets at Time Out Market running the gamut from fresh seafood and sushi to butcher shops, curated pizzas, a burger joint, traditional Portuguese cuisine, and much more, including a really good wine shop.
One lunch spot on my personal Lisbon hit list was a tiny family-run Goan restaurant called Tentações de Goa, which turned out to be all but impossible to find in the narrow, winding, steep streets of Lisbon’s old neighborhood of Mouraria.
But once we found Tentações de Goa we were happy we did, as we enjoyed authentic Goan-style pork vindaloo, exceptional shrimp biryani, samosas, naan, and more. Service was so friendly from owner Maria and her staff, we hated to leave.
Another insanely popular dining spot in Lisbon is Sea Me Peixaria Moderna (Modern Fish Market), which specializes in the freshest fish and seafood, including sushi. It is just one of the many thriving restaurants in the hip and bustling Chiado neighborhood.
The restaurant is essentially a seafood market with a vast array of seafood from Portugal’s coastline. At Sea Me, guests pick out the seafood they want just like at the seafood counter of your favorite seafood seller. Then they are charged per kilogram for their “catch” and the seafood is prepared to order in the kitchen. Most of the seafood is grilled or steamed, depending on the customer’s preference.
A Facebook foodie friend of mine turned us onto Sea Me and gushed over the sushi there. So, in addition to freshly grilled prawns, fish, raw oysters and the like, we also enjoyed very good sashimi, nigiri, and maki rolls. In the rear of the restaurant there is a sushi bar to sit at, as well as an open exhibition kitchen. We loved the Portuguese twist that sushi gets at Sea Me, like the grilled sardine nigiri; sardines are a staple of the Portuguese diet.
If you show up at Sea Me without a reservation – something I don’t recommend – you might be able to squeeze into a seat at the bar. If you linger too long at the bar, one amazing thing about getting around in Lisbon is that Uber drivers are everywhere and most of our Uber trips to restaurants and other sites cost a mere $5 or less. Even a 20-25 minute trip to the airport was only $7; taxis charge around $35 for an airport trip.
And of course, walking in Lisbon is a joy with so much to see and explore. Wear comfortable shoes if you go though, because you won’t want to be walking in your heels on all of the cobblestone and tile streets and sidewalks.
As I mentioned before, servers and managers in Portuguese seafood eateries tend to like to bring raw seafood to your table for inspection before it’s cooked.
Wine lovers will love wine in Portugal. In part, because it is so damned inexpensive. Most of us are familiar with Port and Vinho Verde from Portugal. But we discovered that there are an endless number of wine regions in the country and local wines are usually very good and very cheap. We typically spent $3 to $5 for bottles of good wine in wine shops and around $11 to $18 for bottles in restaurants. There wasn’t a single wine that we sipped in Portugal that we wouldn’t love to have again.
After a few days in Lisbon we were off to Setúbal, a very inviting city less than an hour south of Lisbon. We loved being in Lisbon, but the Setubal vibe was very laid back and relaxing – much more low key than the bustling capital city and a much easier town to drive in.
One of the most widely served dishes on the Setúbal peninsula is called choco frito. It is cuttlefish that is cut into strips (think cuttlefish fingers), coated with corn flour and deep fried, served on rustic bread. The Setúbal area is known for producing a unique dessert wine called Moscatel, with notes of honey, raisin, tangerine, caramel and apricot.
In addition to drinking it, the folks in Setúbal like to use Moscatel in sauces like the one for the bifana I ordered there . Bifanas are Portuguese pork sandwiches where the pork is typically simmered in a white wine and garlic sauce, served on rolls with mustard and piri-piri sauce. However, in Setúbal at a charming restaurant on the town square called Moscatel Setúbal Experience, you’re likely to be served your bifana with slightly sweet Moscatel sauce.
I was struck in Portugal – where a lot of seafood and meat is served – at how many great salads there were in restaurants. Like the scrumptious salmon salad my wife enjoyed at the Moscatel Setúbal Experience restaurant.
Just across the main town square in Setúbal was our favorite wine shop, where the owners turned us onto a bevy of Portuguese wines that we were unfamiliar with, all at ridiculously low prices. Portugal is a sensational spot for wine lovers.
I’m not quite sure why the word “experience” works its way into the names of businesses in Setúbal such as the aforementioned Moscatel Setúbal Experience restaurant. We stayed at a terrific boutique hotel, centrally located just off on the main town square and loved it. It was called RM Guest House – The Experience.
Each room at RM Guest House has a theme, and much to the thrill of my wife the theme of our room was high heels. We highly recommend this terrific hotel to anyone visiting Setúbal.
Up until a couple of decades ago, Setúbal was Portugal’s most important fishing port, specializing in processing and exporting sardines. The city still has an impressive fish market called Mercado do Livramento, one of the best markets in the world. And all throughout Portugal – but especially in Setúbal – you’ll find markets selling a dizzying array of tinned fish and seafood: mussels, clams, tuna and more, but especially sardines.
One of our favorite restaurant experiences in Portugal was at Xtoria in Setúbal, which is recommended by the prestigious Michelin Guide. Xtoria is a nice diversion from the more traditional Portuguese cuisine we were enjoying, with unique dishes like beef tartare brioche with wasabi ice cream, kimchi and pickled mustard seeds. Or, cuttlefish in ras el hanout, cuttlefish emulsion, grilled onion, and potato cream. How about pork cheeks with chocolate, cabbage heart in Peking sauce, turnip puree, persimmon pickle and plum?
Xtoria is a gorgeous restaurant in terms of ambiance and is run by a married couple – two of the most welcoming and generous people we met while in Portugal. The entire staff was friendly and professional and I was especially impressed by our server’s knowledge of wine.
At Xtoria I opted for a less adventurous sirloin steak with potato hash brown, coleslaw, caramelized red onion, and apple-beef jus. My wife – a fish lover – enjoyed a beautiful lota fillet (aka burbot) with mashed potatoes, hummus, pistachios, crispy cockles and beurre blanc.
Another excellent higher-end restaurant is A Vela Branca (the white candle), which is a beautiful restaurant located in Setúbal’s Arrábida Natural Park with stunning scenic views of Sado Bay from the patio terrace.
While dining or just enjoying a cocktail or wine on the terrace is wonderful, dining in the restaurant at A Vela Branca is a joy, as well. The staff is super-friendly and helpful and the food and drink are outstanding.
At A Vela Branca we enjoyed a range of dishes such as steak tartare served with perfect French fries and fresh grilled sea bass with smashed potatoes. But I think our favorite dish was the simplest: shrimp in a lovely moscatel sauce.
In next week’s Utah Bites I’ll share the second half of our trip with a visit to a sublime beach club and a stay in Algarve before heading back to Libson.
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week: “There are two kinds of persons who cannot be trusted in this world: the ones who do not greet you with a firm handshake and the ones who do not eat prawn heads.” – Nelson Carvalheiro
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.